Last week, we heard about two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and how they encountered Christ. Through gathering, confession, Word, and Table, they came to recognise the Risen Lord in a stranger; and when this happened, they were so excited that they rushed off to tell everyone about it. This story is so foundational to our faith that, for over two thousand years, Jesus’ disciples have largely followed the pattern of gathering, confession, Word, and Table whenever they meet: and it is this pattern that we follow in our own worship service. We do this because we trust that when we engage in these practices, somehow, somewhere, we will catch a glimpse of Christ and be oriented back to God, an orientation we are to carry into the rest of the week. So that’s why we meet the way we do. But what of the rest of the week? What are we to do then?
The short answer is in tonight’s story: Jesus commissions his disciples to go out into the world as God’s agents; and the Holy Spirit empowers them to forgive and to retain sins. And since we are Jesus’ disciples living in a post-Pentecost Spirit-filled age, that is our work, too.
But what does it mean to forgive and retain sins? Do we really have that power? The answer, I think, is: yes, and no! But I reckon the real question is something else: Is this commission an invitation to judge? Most of us assume that it is. Left or right, liberal or conservative, we hear this text in isolation, then pour out of our churches and point at behaviours that we do not like. For we know that not everything is OK: we know that sin is real and deadly, and we must tackle it.
And so we judge another person’s sexuality; we judge our neighbour’s use of time and money; we judge the ways other people parent. We judge people’s professional choices, or their theology, or how they order their households. We think we know right behaviour, and so we judge, and we choose what we will forgive. We all do it, all the time.
But is judgement what Jesus is really asking of us? For our judgemental behaviour only increases the anxiety, defensiveness, and hatred in this world. When we judge one another, we are no longer in the full, loving relationship of equals. Instead, we are positioning one person as judge, the other as judged; one as righteous, the other as sinner; and we are no longer living as equals in peace.
So the call to forgive and retain sins cannot be heard in isolation, but must be heard in the wider context of Jesus’ betrayal, death, and resurrection. For Jesus commissions disciples who have locked themselves into a house. They have shut the world out, and they are huddled together in fear. A person they loved and trusted handed their teacher, Jesus, over to the authorities—and the disciples watched him be dragged away. Many of them left Jesus to his fate; others came to the courtyard of the high priest, but then denied ever knowing him. Few stayed to witness Jesus’ public humiliation and execution. Now his body has disappeared, and some among them say they have encountered a dead man.
So this is one highly charged and anxious group of people. They are terrified of the mob, which demanded the death of Jesus. They are terrified of the empty tomb. And they are terrified of each other and of themselves: horrified by their own capacity for disloyalty and faithlessness; scared of a future with no guide. It’s into a suffocating fog, then, of fear and guilt and blame and anxiety, that Jesus appears.
When he comes, he does not speak words of anger or blame to the people who betrayed him, the people who denied him, the people who misunderstood him all along. Instead, he speaks words of peace. “Peace be with you,” he says. He shows them his wounds: evidence of who he is, evidence of all they are not. And again, he says: “Peace be with you.”
And then he commissions these hurting, scared, angry, anxious, and faithless people—those people!—to leave the safety of the locked house, and to go out into the world as God’s agents, empowered to forgive and retain sins. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them, and makes them enough.
Read in this context, we see that his very presence among the disciples is an extraordinary act of forgiveness. They have betrayed him and denied him, misunderstood him and left him to die: and he comes among them with words only of peace. Only of peace. Then he commissions them to be loving, forgiving agents of God in this world.
This is the man who told them the story of an unjust manager: a man who was forgiven a large debt but retained a small debt, and was severely judged. This is the man who told them to forgive, not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. This is the man who said “Judge not, lest you yourself be judged”, and who taught that the only judge, the only one who could separate the wheat from the weeds, is God. Who then among Jesus’ disciples, forgiven of so much, who then could withhold forgiveness from anyone who asked? Who, indeed?
And who among us? For we too are his disciples, and so our call is to forgive, forgive, forgive. Forgive each other, and accept forgiveness ourselves. Each week, then, we gather bearing our wounds. Like the first disciples, many of us are hurting, scared, angry, anxious, and faithless. But we gather to encounter the healing and liberating love of Christ. And each week, we are sent out to engage in the Spirit’s work of reconciliation.
So if any among you are angry with a brother or sister, if any among you remember that your brother or sister has something against you—seek peace. Do not judge. Instead, love, talk, listen, engage, apologise, forgive, love more deeply. Retain nothing, lest it be a burden on your own heart. For you are called to peace, you are called to love, you are called to forgive—and in these practices, you will find salvation. Amen. Ω
A reflection on John 20:19-31 by Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 7 May 2017 (A33, two weeks late!)